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Review: Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Dubai Opera

In the age of Instagram and Tinder, Mozart’s Magic Flute reminds us that beauty, when skin deep, is a perilous notion

They didn’t have Instagram or Tinder in Mozart’s day, but if they did, you can bet plucky young Tamino would be double tapping and swiping right quite a lot.

In the era of instant gratification apps that insist that beauty is often little more than skin deep, the tale of a prince hell-bent on rescuing a distressed and helpless princess based on little more than his immediate infatuation with her image — and its ensuing perils — should sound a siren for modern audiences.

Since it was first performed in 1791, with Wolfgang Amadeus himself conducting the orchestra to the script written by librettist Emanuel Schikander, The Magic Flute or Die Zauberflöte has become the second most performed opera of all time, behind Verdi’s The Fallen Woman.

And from the Armenian National Academic Theatre of Opera’s production at Dubai Opera, it’s not hard to see why it continues to be so popular: containing the emotional ups and downs, happy resolution, vocal virtuosity and of course the grand score that has the ability to captivate and thrill regardless of your knowledge and understanding of opera as an art form.

Set in a dreamy, fairy tale wonderland Mozart’s two-part comedy tells the story of a young impressionable Prince (Tamino) who embarks on an odyssey to free the intoxicatingly beautiful Pamina from the clutches of the supposed evil sorcerer, Sarastro, at the cajoling of the evil Queen of the Night. It’s your classic “The Quest” plot, featuring a damsel in distress, and all of the peculiar and historically repugnant attitudes to gender and race that have plagued even the greatest works of art.

They didn’t have Instagram or Tinder in Mozart’s day, but if they did, you can bet plucky young Tamino would be double tapping and swiping right quite a lot.

The two-hour plus singspiel (a form of opera that combines singing and talking) moves you through a surreal wonderland of the unconscious. You join Tamino on his search for meaning and The Other in a seemingly unknowable but familiar world. And that meaning comes in the form of an image of female beauty presented to him by the evil Queen. Yes, the handsome prince charming, equipped with his flute that turns sadness into joy, falls in love with an image. Feel familiar? They didn’t have Instagram or Tinder in Mozart’s day, but if they did, you can bet plucky young Tamino would be double tapping and swiping right quite a lot.

For this production, Harutyn Arzumanyan conducts artfully and passionately, despite some timing issues in the first act. But the real star of the show, as is often the case with this piece, is the principal The Queen of the Night. In this case, Hasmik Torosyan, whose vocal gymnastics in the unfathomably complex and demanding “Der Holle Rach” aria is worth seeing on its own. She captures and emobidies pain and suffering with a malevolence that is a cathartic experience in itelf. Three minutes of wondrous performance.

Artistic director, Mo Constantine Orbelian, makes intelligent use of innovative staging. The set, at times a mesmerising enfilading digital animation set back against the towering Queen of the Night, elevates what is at times a droll affair that can amble from one scene to the next.

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The Magic Flute is an intriguing choice for the region — one that is still being introduced to opera. It contains plenty of laugh out loud moments because of just how bizarre the plot and action is. The unexpected moment when three enormous toddlers (The Child Spirits) emerge, emblazoned on the screen, is one of those where everyone looks around to make sure they’re still watching the same production they arrived at.

There are of course those underlying dubious attitudes to gender and race; which we can ascribe to historical oddities contained in the original script, but are the sort of thing that an updated version for a contemporary audience should be tempered or altered to suit a more modern taste.

And the play itself is a blend of medieval morality play, Shakespearean comedy and Enlightenment philosophy: all of which are profound and potentially esoteric concepts in themselves. Putting them all together, at the time it was written by Mozart, was an achievement of great note: something the well-educated audiences would have enjoyed noting that they picked up the reference to Macbeth or Everyman. But whether it’s the sort of comedic farce that is going to win fans anew in the region is a question that’s left hanging in the air when the final curtain falls and happiness is restored at the Temple of Sun, as Sarastro declares triumph over all evil.

And then there’s Tamino: a problematic character, if ever there was one. He does little that is actually heroic. Cowers from with other-worldly savage powers. Passes out at the sight of a snake. Turns his swipe-right infatuation with Pamina into a roving search for the one he must “have”. And he plays the flute on the odd occasion to make people happy. You would want a bit more from the figurehead that leads the charge against the dark powers of the Queen of the Night, wouldn’t you?

For all the grandeur of Mozart’s score here, it doesn’t contain his most immaculate music. The late, gorgeous piano and clarinet concertos, concerto and other vocal works — especially the Requiem Mass in C minor — are all wonders that should perhaps be highlighted before grappling with what became the last piece he wrote before his premature death. Having said all of which, what you get with The Magic Flute is a weird, wonderful and ultimately entertaining couple of hours of opera.

The Magic Flute is performed at the Dubai Opera until September 15. The Armenian National Academic Theatre Opera and Orchestra is led by Mo Constantine Orbelian, General & Artistic Director of the Yerevan Opera. 

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